I, me, myself

The cult of self
Last Updated 25 February 2012, 20:21 IST

We live in a selfish world where everything seems to revolve around 'me, me, me'. Darwin is resurrected, although not in the best possible sense, as man discards the notion of thinking of the next man, focussing only on himself to ensure he wins the race. And, it definitely is a dangerous trend, writes Jahnavi Barua

These are confusing times for people. Old ideas, old teachings and philosophies are being discarded as unthinkingly as used cola bottles, old jam jars, old computers and cars, old anything. Where old used to signify dependability, steadfastness, even wisdom.

Now anything old is suspect. Therefore, the new is venerated like never before and at the core of all newness is the idea of new ideas. One of these much recommended current ideas is the art of self. No mistake here, not selflessness as was taught by the great masters but, self. As they say, to use a cliché, out of the mouth of babes, but it was a child who brought this into shocking focus with a profound question.

He asked his mother why she had taught him to share his school tiffin with friends who had forgotten theirs; one of these friends had scoffed at him saying his mother had said to eat his fill and only share what was left, if any. These were hard times and one had to look after oneself. The perplexed child asked his equally bewildered mother, what then, was the right thing to do?

The right thing

What, indeed, is the right thing to do? For generations, it was not difficult to know what the right things were. Honour thy father and mother, then your teachers and your elders; give, give to people, not only because you will receive, but just because that was the right thing to do. Put your guest, your neighbour, your child before yourself; put yourself lower down on the list of things for that was the seemly thing to do. There really wasn’t much thinking involved here as the rules of right and wrong were quite inflexible.

But in these flexible times, everything is questioned, debated and discussed until the certainties of life suddenly are as steady as jelly. The mother pondering the question of the tiffin had rather old-fashioned ideas for the times and reassured the child that she had been right in teaching him to share. The child seemed satisfied, but the matter did not end there. At the next birthday party, as the old-fashioned mother watched her child stumble around the edges of a circle of children picking up swiftly the treasure that fell from above them, from a burst piñata or khoi bag as it is variously known, the mother of the other child sighed dramatically.

What a pity, she remarked, that a mother would knowingly teach a child values that ensured he would be defenceless in today’s world.

Are times so hard now that the old jungle laws have to be applied? Times are certainly bad: our planet is overburdened by the weight of the human race; it is shamelessly exploited by the very people it supports; resources are beginning to run dry. Still, does that mean that years of civilisation are to be thrown away? There are people who seem to think that is the only way forward. Darwin is resurrected, although not in the best possible sense, as man discards the notion of thinking of the next man, focussing only on himself to ensure he wins the race.

It would be wrong to generalise and say everyone in the world has grown selfish and self-obsessed. There are still people who care about things other than themselves and their immediate needs: there are people toiling to conserve our environment, there are scientists and researchers working to find solutions for many of the ills that ail humans; there are people more fortunate than their fellow being, who recognise that fact, and work hard to spread equality among men. And since  everyone cannot be a hero, there are others who serve by simply being polite and considerate; by obeying the laws of the land and the more nebulous laws of human kindness .

They do their civic duty and that is a noble thing indeed. So, there are those who can look beyond themselves, but their numbers are dwindling. Rapidly and surely.

No concessions

Instead, in our day to day lives, in our homes and in our community, one is constantly confronted with the sceptre of a self-absorbed people. A morning spent at a traffic signal is enough to send anyone into despair. On overcrowded roads, cars nudge and push each other as if engaged in some medieval battle, no one concedes an inch; and of course, no one thinks of the poor pedestrian attempting to cross the dangerous road.

Similar stories in department stores, as people battle their way to billing counters, if necessary breaking rules and bringing a cartload of provisions to a counter tagged as express, meant only for five items or under. Naturally, no concession is made for the elderly or the young mother with an infant on her hip. All is fair in this new world. Once quiet neighbourhoods are now rife with the noise of construction and traffic and the second-hand noise from neighbouring televisions and music. The propagators of this noise are concerned only with their right to make it and listen to it; the fact that others are also entitled to their peace and quiet is not something they even consider.

Cars are parked so other cars behind cannot make their way out; rubbish is thrown out from higher floors of buildings onto less fortunate residents below; the list is endless and depressing. Better to say no more. It is clear that the cult of the self is established and thriving.

‘Family’ in danger?

Most dispiriting is how this affects the structure of a family. It is but one step from the neighbourhood to inside someone’s front door and human traits, like the leopard’s spots, are hard to change. The child who has been tutored in focussing on himself at the cost of fellow human beings loses the ability to distinguish when and where his newly taught skills are to be used. Indeed, this trait is so deeply buried in his mind and heart that very soon, he turns on ones close to him. A frightening scenario, but one that is increasingly true and one that will only grow in numbers and force soon.

A child accustomed to indulging his own needs grows into an adult incapable of doing anything for anyone else; he cannot bring himself to do his duty by his own parents or siblings or extended family. The mother who nurtured these self-centric tendencies in her child is now clearly and dangerously, at the receiving end of her own teachings. There are other parents who are so absorbed in each other and in their hectic lives that they are completely unaware of their children’s needs. The same children, either in resentment or simply in imitation of their parents’ actions, neglect them in turn.

Many families are thus breaking apart. Brothers do not visit their brothers in the same city; other brothers, on the other hand, fly into a city where their brothers live, and neglect to call them. Very soon, it may happen that the word family, as we know it, may not exist anymore.

Time now perhaps, to put the brakes on this devastating phenomenon. There should, perhaps, be a movement, a revolution, that seeks to return to man the very essence of his being. The ability to think about the next man; the very human qualities of kindness, caring, consideration and selflessness. Every man’s individual progress, while important, is not as significant as the cumulative progress of the human race. All the cars, properties, gadgets, wealth that man garners, are of no use, if our supplies of oil run dry and if electricity cannot be manufactured. All the wealth and fame in the world is anyway of little use if there is no one to share it with.

Where does one start this revolution? Useless to look at governments — across the world, the standards they have set for self-centredness are renowned. They have already succumbed to the temptation of the self and are in dire need of overhaul now.

There are other places and people we have to look to set this juggernaut into motion.

Our schools, colleges and universities; our families and community groups; workers’ groups and corporate boardrooms — all these institutions have to take on the responsibility of  changing what is happening and take it now, before it is impossible to stall this dangerous idea from overwhelming us all. The school and the family, without doubt, are the most significant bearers of this responsibility.

They are the crucibles where a new people can be forged. It is time for them to take to arms, to instil in little minds, clearly and forever, what is good and what is true. That is the only way to take our endangered race forward.

(Published 25 February 2012, 13:49 IST)

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